Young and Old Soak Up The Gospel of Graham
Monday, July 10, 2006
Billy Graham seemed frail as he stepped up to the pulpit yesterday at Camden Yards in Baltimore, his body weakened in recent years by cancer, Parkinson's disease and a series of brain surgeries.
But when he opened his mouth, out came the same purposeful voice that for more than half a century has preached, implored and converted millions to Christianity.
Squinting into the crowd, Graham asked, "How many of the Ten Commandments have you kept? Try to name them. Scripture says: 'All we like sheep have gone astray.' "
Listening to him at the ballpark were about 33,500 people who had traveled from as far as West Virginia and Pennsylvania. They had come to the Metro Maryland Festival for the songs, the message and, possibly, a glimpse of history. After decades of preaching, yesterday's sermon was likely the last Graham would give locally -- and perhaps his last anywhere.
At the sight of the 87-year-old preacher being driven into the stadium in a small cart, the crowd gave a shout, and most people leapt to their feet. His son, the Rev. William Franklin Graham III, who has replaced his father as executive head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, introduced his father and helped him to the pulpit.
Then the elder Graham began to speak of the difficulties in the world, of faith's importance and of God's ability to save -- the same message he has preached since first catching the nation's attention in 1949 with tent meetings in Los Angeles.
Those were heady days, when Graham -- holding a thick Bible in one hand and imploring his audience with the other -- could speak for eight weeks and on the last day still stare into the crowd with his piercing eyes and call out for thousands to come to the altar. A few years later, he would take Madison Square Garden in New York by storm, preaching night after night for 16 weeks and converting droves to Christianity.
Graham, the son of a North Carolina dairy farmer, became counselor to every president from Harry S. Truman through George W. Bush. Many have dubbed him pastor to the nation. And for over 60 years, he has preached to more than 210 million people in over 185 countries, according to Graham's association.
With his retirement, Graham's famous crusades have been replaced by his son's festivals, which feature contemporary Christian bands to appeal to a younger audience and potential converts.
But many who attended yesterday's event said that it was Graham's 25-minute message more than anything else that drove them to the stadium. "I've drifted in and out of churches throughout my life," said Lois Muscalli, a retired bookkeeper from Baltimore. "I'm at a point in my life when I'm looking to renew faith, and if anyone can point me there, it's Billy Graham."
Many at the event spoke of Graham's enduring appeal in a country that soured on televangelists after personal and financial scandals and signs of hypocrisy and extravagance. Christian scholars say Graham's ministry has remained steady despite some criticism for his ties with President Richard Nixon and what some called a slow response to the civil rights movement.
"While others have fallen or disappointed, he's been true to God and His message," said Jill Lloyd, 50, of Ellicott City, who brought her 9-year-old daughter to hear Graham speak. "I've listened to him through the valleys of my life, the very low points, and it's always refreshing."
Tens of thousands turned out for his three-day crusade in New York last year, billed as his last. After Hurricane Katrina, Graham decided to take the pulpit once more, alongside his son, in New Orleans. His visit to Baltimore was unexpected until recent months, organizers said.
"Everyone keeps talking about whether this or that will be his last time," said Michael Biblehimer, a supervisor for volunteer counselors at the event. "But I think he's a man of God who's been called to evangelize. I don't think he's going to stop until the very end."
On stage, Graham said, "Unfortunately, I'm getting too old, and I thought as I was heading out, this may be the last time I have an opportunity to preach Gospel to an audience like this."
He ended his sermon, as he has for decades, with a passionate call for those in the audience to believe in God and change their lives.
"I'm going to ask you to get out of your seats . . . to come out to the platform," he said.
"I know it's a long way from upstairs, but your whole eternal life may depend on what you do at this moment."